Monday 28 July 2003

In the hands of experts

My back weighed twenty tons and was made from solid concrete. Invisible hi-tensile hawsers anchored on each shoulder blade left me contorted like a butterfly pinned in a display case, my head was brought up short by unyielding knots of restraining rope when I tipped forward. Pressure was building in the cramped, tight dorsal muscles and could only manifest itself in tension and headaches. It was time to leave the stresses of the office, take advantage of the Radisson Hotel's spa services and book a massage.

In the sterile white treatment room new-age type music tinkled pathetically from the stereo and lightly scented nightlights sat in carved crystal holders on the shelves and ledges. I lay face down on the treatment table covered from the waist down by a towel and waited for Alice to return to the room and start the massage. I knew I was going to hate her, this detestable aromatherapy drenched, alternative hippy pseudo science crap would annoy me, the appalling music would grind my patience, she would try to tell me about the healing powers of inert crystals and I would be riled. My back twitched in pre-emptive anger.

She slipped quietly back into the room, told me to place my arms by my side, dimmed the lights and started the massage.

I lost track of time after six months and fifteen seconds. Eyes closed, face pressed into towel, all I could feel were hands like steam irons smoothing warm oil into the skin of my back. Soon vision closed down, sounds became muted, I was nothing more than a field of pliant muscle and flesh being kneaded and furrowed by two, twenty, a thousand hands the size of battleships and the consistency of toffee. I tried to think, but there was no room for thoughts, as soon as they popped into existence they were squeezed out under the steady rain of pressing hands. I fell out of the world.

After three seconds and twenty years she finished, placed a warm, damp towel on my back and gently retethered my free-floating mind to the rest of my body. When I stood up for the first time my back had disappeared and in its place sat a cloud, a weightless, bright, clean confection of measureless dimensions that draped around my shoulders. Muscles tensed and relaxed smoothly, internal hydraulics unfettered by the grit of stress.

Crystals or no crystals, I'm going back for more.

Wednesday 23 July 2003

Time flies like an arrow...*

When I was ten it was obvious that my two remaining grandparents weren't real people. A production line in a distant factory created old folk by the bus load (a mould of olds creating a cast of casts) and distributed them around the world to do old people things like drink tea and talk to each other for ever and ever about motorways. There was no connection between their slow, quiet ways and my non-stop zipping and dashing.

My mother showed me the black and white photos of twenty five year old Doreen and Jim that hung in the cool, dark hallway, but I couldn't connect them with the aged versions that gave me pretend pipes to smoke and let me help with the crossword. Nor could I connect them with me, twenty five was too far a stretch for my childhood imagination, it was an impossible lie that grown-ups over sixteen grew from us kids under twelve.

At twenty, one grandparent poorer, I could mentally rewind time's arrow and turn my grandad's friendly, lined face into that of the handsome man in the hallway portrait, could see that he had once been a young man like me. But I couldn't do the opposite and run life's videotape in fast forward to preview my appearance at his age. The breathtaking vitality of my peers, the smooth, glowing skin, bright eyes and oh so much laughter and fun protected us all from the possibility of aging, there was nowhere on the taut canvas of our bodies and faces to write time's marks.

Now the canvas has slackened, I am thirty and all my grandparents are gone. I've grown up enough to understand that age comes to all of us and to see where the future will fit on our faces. The eyes of my friends, still full of fun and laughter, are slightly crinkly at the edges where they were once smooth, the skin is slowly clouding. When I pinch my own hand, the flesh thinks twice before returning to rest. I feel strong and powerful, but my knees creak and I have to take care playing football.

It's unwise to fear something as inevitable and obvious as aging, and, although I'm slightly sad and slightly scared at the changes time has brought, I'm relieved to finally understand that my grandparents were real people too.

* ...but fruit flies like a banana.

Wednesday 16 July 2003

Dringy does Dallas

Spat out from the Peru flight into the sticky heat of Dallas Fort Worth airport at 9am on a Saturday morning, with seven hours to kill before my next flight, I decided to play intrepid traveller and see what attractions downtown Dallas had to offer.

The US's famous car culture is not particularly welcoming to those without wheels and I'd neglected to pack my SUV in my hand luggage. Naoka, the friendly Terminal A voluntary airport ambassador (what's all that about? my kindly Aunt Sylvia used to be a Friend of the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, but the American transport infrastructure does not strike me as a particularly worthy recipient of volunteers' time) suggested a $40 cab ride to the town centre, or better still a $20 cab ride to the nearest swanky mall. Schooled by Dervala's minimal spending habits over the previous weeks I balked at the expense and struck off to uncover public transport.

Three dollars, one shuttle bus, one half hour wait, one train - a big, shiny, two-storey train to excite the not particularly well-hidden trainspotter in me - and one replacement bus ride I stood, satisfied, in downtown Dallas.


Not alone in the no friends sense, although I was, but alone in the sense that there was no-one else there.

It's difficult to pick up social cues in an alien country, even an alien country with so much that is disconcertingly familiar from its numerous cultural exports, but empty, sweaty block after empty, sweaty block populated only by drunks and thrift stores did not indicate a thriving neighbourhood to me. I walked a mile up, I walked a mile across, and still there was nothing to do.

At first I searched hard for indications of life or commerce so that I could buy the cheap electronic ephemera I craved after Peru, or some cheap jeans, or even a can of Coke. I was excited by the spinning Budweiser sign in the restaurant, but the grubby metal shutters prevented entry. Perhaps just around the corner there was somewhere I could spend my imported dollars on something other than shabby seven buck shoes, instead there were more closed shops and empty sidewalks. After half an hour in the heat I changed the focus of my hunt and flagged down the first cab I saw.

Cyril, the chatty cabby, once over the amusement at the way my English accent contrasted with my apparently Germanic features, had known I was a foreigner as soon as he'd seen me as none of the locals would be walking around those streets in such heat. Dallas gets more interesting in the afternoon he explained, and the West End was the place to go he said as he waved vaguely at an urban area the size of Hampshire. I was relieved to get back to the air-conditioned comfort of Terminal A, and relieved of the $40 I'd tried hard to keep earlier.

Dallas probably does have a vibrant heart, a pulsing cultural scene of arguing coffee-house writers and edgy, raw underground clubs, it's probably even got electronic discount stores. I managed to miss the lot.

You see, the thing is, I've been busy, and they're working me hard, and I'd like to be writing more, but, well.... what she said.